I’ve been “in the field” of criminal justice for longer than my active decision to pursue it academically or professionally. I’ve been working in criminal justice from the days of trying to understand why the guys in my neighborhood beefed with each other over a color or a block, despite the fact that they spent time together in daycare or shared the same classroom in elementary. I’ve been working in criminal justice from the days of fighting for my high school across the street from the projects to remain open in the face of hundreds of school closures, cited as low-performance, despite the fact that we had little resources and the real standard was miracle, not achievement. I’ve been working in criminal justice for half of my short life. And I must say that I’m tired. I’m tired that I and the many millions of people working for social justice in criminal justice are still working. We’ve tried countless ways to overhaul the system, and have been successful of many fronts, but the continuous reminder of the long way to go sometimes becomes defeating.
I recently began working in city government. Prior to starting, I knew I would be entering a space where I would be the minority and even a subset of the minority because of my intersecting identities, but I was unprepared for the emotional cost of showing up every day. I was unprepared for the ways in which I would have to perform—to be silent, to be cautious, to be highly aware, to be palatable, and to be agreeable— to compromise to fit in. I was unprepared for the sheer energy it would take me to get through 40 hours a week, even in a role that I was so committed to. For the first couple weeks, I would leave work so drained and could not understand why I was so worn-out. Once I began to recollect the events of my day, I saw so many pockets of energy exertion that I realized my fatigue was attributed to more than waking up earlier than I was used to. I felt heavy.
I feel heavy. I sit in countless meetings and listen to countless strategies to address criminal justice issues that all fail to mention that the work needs to be done because people are human. I am tired of change being driven by anything other than acknowledging the dignity and worth of a human life. Forget economic benefits. Forget who can use it for their political platform. Forget who will or will not find it palatable. Forget any reason that does not put human in front of any crime, condition or identity. Anything less will not achieve meaningful change. Human existence should be the sole justification for change. On any other stand, we will only see iterations of the same oppressive and violent system: one that approves the epitome of whiteness to sit in the White House, one that approves the infiltration of systems like policing and correction in communities of colors like plagues, literally wiping out millions of people and severing hope for millions more, one that has caused the internalization of hatred, one that causes poverty and then criminalizes it. If we reduce the amount of people in jail only to have them in the community still under correctional control, we have not achieved meaningful change. If we only come up with reform for people who commit “non-violent” crimes, while slamming the book against people who commit “violent” crimes, we have not achieved meaningful change. If we allow formerly incarcerated people/people with criminal records to contribute to society only when they met our standards of “redemption”, we have not achieved meaningful change. If we continue to justify police-sponsored killings because of self-defense or the officer’s top priority of getting home safely to their family, we have not achieved meaningful change. If we call for restructuring to the system because it is costing us too much money, we have not achieved meaningful change. Meaningful change will only be accomplished when the people on whose behalf we are working mean something—mean human. I am tired that this concept is not common sense, that it still needs to be said.
But. I can do nothing else than continue working. I will continue to pull strength from and invest energy into Behind the Walls, Between the Lines to create spaces of healing, transformation, and catalysts for change. I will continue to navigate whiteness in the workplace and carve out ways to stand in my truth. I will continue to speak. I will continue to show up. I will continue to fight for justice because it has a name.