Criminal justice dominates the national conversation regarding race in America, and it has been the rallying cry of many protests in America and around the world. I was first introduced to race and policing when I was nine years old. I witnessed the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Bree Black within a few months. The prison and the criminal justice systems are stacked against Black folks in America. Many are finally beginning to wake up to the grim reality that is intrinsic to our nation. I am pleased to witness an outcry that challenges this violence; however, as I witness and participate in the protests against this violence it is crucial we remind others the importance of intersectionality. The battle doesn’t stop at prison. Our fight faces every institution that contributes to the systemic violence we witness on a daily basis.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law school, first used the term intersectionality to explain how power saturates the systems through which we function today. Intersectionality is not just about representation. Because of Crenshaw’s definition, I advocate for a movement against the prison system and its violence in a way that accounts for all groups of people, because the prison system affects us all.
In Nashville, we’ve seen an onslaught of opposition against the protests sparked by George Floyd. Governor Bill Lee passed laws restricting protests, which ultimately threatens our voting rights. Bill Lee, and others in his administration, are invested in preserving the violence of policing and prisons. Nashvillians have a duty to hold their elected officials accountable. By voting and organizing within our communities we can address these restrictions on free speech that our Constitution guarantees. This phenomena is not new. Elected officials have sought to prevent formerly incarcerated folk from voting for years, and voter suppression continues to be a mainstay of Southern politics. Voting ensures harm reduction in our communities and bottom-up change, but it cannot be the end of our efforts. We need methods of organizing that will pressure government officials besides casting ballots—because we cannot solely engage in ways of challenging violence that exclude those who have been affected by the Prison Industrial Complex: prisoners themselves.
Prison reform should be understood as restorative justice and reparations for communities that have been systematically destroyed. When we say “end the prison industrial complex,” we mean stop defunding public housing, remove police from metro public schools, and end ICE’s role in criminalizing undocumented immigrants through penal detention centers. The Prison Industrial Complex infects our daily lives. We must continue to place pressure on our leaders to address this violence. This also means holding ourselves accountable — doing what we can to protest, vote, and disrupt agendas that threaten members of our communities.
COVID-19 is a unique threat to prisons. Prisons are the most vulnerable to the spread of this virus, and our nation’s leaders ignore their fellow human beings in prison when they fail to address these abhorrent conditions. This virus has revealed how we have failed people of color and the criminal justice system. This is a failure of government and the systems we claim to have “faith” in. We must also hold ourselves accountable. I see too many kids my own age post “Black Lives Matter” on their Instagram and Snapchat stories, but they continue to socialize without masks. Black Lives Matter isn’t just support for the latest victim of police brutality. When you consume content from a transphobic creator — do those Black lives matter to you? When you hang out with your friends — do Black lives who are disproportionately affected by disease matter to you? These contradictions expose the radical potential of the phrase Black Lives Matter.
In the wake of Jacob Blake, the violence of police brutality, and the prison system that continues to infect our lives — it seems as if there is nothing that we can do. I do believe that we can organize and change the conditions of violence in which we exist. Nashvillians should continue to vote and recognize that activism does not start nor stop at the ballot box. Organize within your communities. Involve yourselves in mutual aid networks that help support those without homes, queer and trans folks who’ve been kicked out of their homes, and create ways to support each other. Organizations like Worker’s Dignity and Tees 4 Equality have organized protests in Nashville and provided resources for challenging economic inequality and racism in our communities. Our challenge to these conditions of violence must be widespread and continuous, and it must account for all of us. When we protest this violence, we must also create opportunities for all who want to confront this violence can participate. It’s not just a hashtag, it’s a lifestyle.
Mayowa Kassim High School Student Nashville, TN