Progressive Maryland Executive Director Larry Stafford, who's been leading our longtime advocacy for decarceration and mass liberation in Maryland, thinks through the question of justice in the Botham Jean murder conviction and sentencing of Amber Guyger.
Prince George's is struggling with the police killing of a black man in Hyattsville within the last week, the latest of sixteen police killings in the state this year.
/By Larry Stafford<>Progressive Breakfast/ I’ve been thinking about this Amber Guyger verdict, and seeing different perspectives on the timeline. Lately, I’ve been seeking to understand more about what some call an abolitionist framework around the criminal legal system.
To put it simply, abolitionists view that the caging of human beings is not a solution to safety, or a way to solve problems when there are breakdowns in human relations. In fact, the prison, or carceral, system we currently have is not one that actually makes things better for people. It is more like an opioid pain medication that fails to address the root cause of pain, while creating dependency, and making our society sicker. (A studied abolitionist can correct me if I’m explaining this poorly).
I understand that when a white person takes a Black life, especially a police officer, we all want justice. Under the rules of our current system, the guilty verdict on this case seems fair in my view. However, when I see the calls for a harsher sentence and the celebration of a system that many of us have agreed does not work for its stated purpose, and one that many of us acknowledge is inhumane, I have to pause and reflect.
It seems we have very limited tools to deliver justice in this country, and a very limited understanding of what the word should mean. Harsher sentences will not heal the harm to families such as Botham Jean’s. In fact I’m seeing people chastise Brandt Jean (Botham Jean’s brother) for hugging his brother’s killer in court, and stating that he didn’t want her to go to prison. The name-calling and judgement I’ve seen against someone who recently lost their brother is sad, and puts on display how the system dehumanizes us all and promotes the worst in human nature.
The verdict and the sentence do almost nothing to prevent this in the future, no matter how harsh the sentence. It will not erase or replace what’s been going on for hundreds of years in terms of the murder and demonization of Black people. In some ways, I see some of the response to the sentence as a testament to the fact that there really is no justice in our current system.
Is there a number of years in prison that would satisfy everyone? Is it that we want a sentence that’s comparable to the thousands of unjust sentences Black and Brown people are currently serving throughout this country? Is it that we just want to see the oppressors experience the same pain that we’ve felt far too often when we are taken away from our families and caged?
What is justice in the United States?
Tragically, Botham Jean lost his life and the lives of those who love him will never be the same. Sadly ,this verdict and sentence will not change the fact that for hundreds of years Black people have been demonized and dehumanized in such a way that I know I too could share a similar fate whether at the hands of the police, a vigilante, or someone who stumbles into my home and can only see me as a wild beast intruding into their life, needing to be slaughtered.
I’m still learning about this abolitionist concept, but I think I’ve learned that punishment and justice are not the same. The carceral system is not something I could ever find myself celebrating or expecting to bring me peace. And by watching the discussions we have online surrounding the conclusion of this case, I’ve also learned that nuance and humaneness are not traits this system produces in abundance.
Larry Stafford is executive director of Progressive Maryland, part of the People’s Action network of grassroots groups, and a leader in the movements for Black Liberation and Democratic Socialism. This article appeared in Progressive Breakfast Oct. 4, and earlier on Medium.