† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Metaphysics, Imagination, and Police/Prison “Reform”: A Criminal Injustice Op-Ed
by Kay Whitlock
That reform trap door can open awfully fast under unsuspecting feet.
Recently it opened up under Black youth leadership in the Windy City when the ACLU of Illinois announced the results of its secret negotiations with the City of Chicago regarding the Chicago Police Department’s “stop and frisk” practices.
In this case, that agreement wasn’t simply a breach of good faith with Black youth who have been organizing with relentless persistence against structural racism and police violence in their many forms. This was an outright betrayal that literally undermined the efforts of We Charge Genocide (WCG) – a grassroots organization comprised of people who are most heavily impacted by that violence – to address “stop and frisk” in some fundamentally different ways.
An open letter from We Charge Genocide details the nature and effects of that betrayal.
The ACLU-negotiated agreement calls for police data to be released confidentially to the ACLU and a designated consultant; the public can only try to gain access through the cumbersome processes of the Freedom of Information Act. There is no certainty it will be provided at all, much less in a timely way or without legal intervention.
By contrast, the We Charge Genocide-initiated Stops, Transparency, Oversight, and Protection (STOP) Act would require data collection for all stops, including demographic information for those stopped, but it goes much further. It also would record the badge numbers of officers involved as well as more detailed information about the stop: location, reason, result. And the law would require that all those stopped be given receipts so that they have demonstrable proof that this interaction occurred.
Knowing the STOP Act was moving forward, ACLU nonetheless went ahead with secret negotiations with city officials; community partners who had long been exposing and organizing against “stop and frisk” and other forms of police violence, abuse, and misconduct were left out in the cold.
With the release of the open letter, the ACLU pronounced itself “confused” by the WCG response and, in effect, attempted to explain how Black youth organizers were wrong in their assessment. ACLU also declared its support for continuing efforts to pass the STOP (Stops, Transparency, Oversight and Protection) Act with its stronger transparency and accountability provisions. But the damage had been done; Mayor Rahm Emmanuel sought a filing delay from City Council members who were sponsors of the STOP ACT.
ACLU provided cover to and brokered a deal with the Mayor who could now sidestep any more dealings with grassroots advocates and activists who created momentum for change in the first place and played an important role in forcing the City’s hand on a landmark reparations package for police torture survivors and their families.
Thankfully, We Charge Genocide and other grassroots Chicago organizations representing the communities bearing the brunt of structural racism in its multiple forms, including police violence, will not be deterred; we applaud and support them.
But this is a cautionary lesson for those on the trembling and rapidly shifting ground of criminal legal system/policing/prison reform.
How do we begin to understand it? Why would the American Civil Liberties Union do such a thing? Yet the question isn’t really just about ACLU. And the answer won’t be found in narrow discussions about issues, policies, and tactics.
This problem is structural and – to use an unusual word in debates about the criminal legal system, its methods, and its reach – metaphysical. If we’re not talking about the vision and principles underlying our proposals, we end up with a reformed version of essentially the same civic catastrophe.