The Grassroots Law Project: A Fix for America’s (in)Justice System?
Here’s a brief review of Shaun King and Lee Merritt’s response to the ‘now what?’ question resulting from the Black Lives Matter protests.
“Mass incarceration is a monster that took hundreds of years, with millions of laws and policies, to build. We need to dismantle it — piece by piece, structure by structure, and build something redemptive in its place.”
These are the words that preface the Grassroots Law Project plan of action for addressing issues within the United States’ police and incarceration system.
What’s the purpose of this project?
For a long time, the US has been teetering a mountain top, poised to fall at any moment. Events over the last month, with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and then George Floyd, were the necessary gust of wind to finally push the nation over the edge.
For an equally long time, many have been in denial that the US was in such a position. They would point to other countries and different regions, proclaiming, “there’s no way we are in a worse position than them, look how much higher up we are!” Even now, as their nation tumbles towards sea level, many close their eyes and attribute their new velocity to a mere raucous, caused by provocateurs and enemies of the state.
Regardless of what they think, the US is in descent. And now, it needs an end game to ensure that it can make its way back to ground safely, save it being torn to shreds before it reaches its destination.
Can the grassroots law project be this end game?
Maybe so. Founded by civil rights activist Shaun King and civil rights lawyer Lee Merritt, the pair have assembled a team of policy analysts and community organizers committed to shaping the many talking points of the Black Lives Matter movement into actionable policies. True to their community-oriented spirit, this team is then supervised by an advisory board made up of those who were related to the recent victims of police brutality and court injustice, such as the mother of Ahmaud Arbery and the brother of Rodney Reed.
While I would encourage everyone to read the policy points and current cases for themselves, what follows is a brief outline of their 6 key areas of focus. Which of these will even be possible let alone achievable is yet to be seen, however for now it seems to be the primary set of demands laid out by some of the movement’s key figures.
Defund Police and Invest in Communities
Framed by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who stated, “budgets are moral documents,” these policies seek to redirect the US’ massive policing and incarceration spending — around $200 billion annually — towards things like infrastructure, education, healthcare, and much more. This priority shift, both fiscal and therefore by their logic implicitly moral, is important, as it underpins the policy changes to come. Overall, this policy section seems to be focused on withdrawing the ‘police’ from policing, and replacing them with context-specific and community-focused treatment programs as opposed to the typical rule-by-law punishment system we have become accustomed to.
Includes: decriminalizing drugs, creating safe injection sites, overhauling the 9–1–1 system, creating unarmed first responders, taking police out of schools, creating a task force to review all police shootings, providing free essential services like reading material and phone calls to inmates. Also, it pushes for increased spending on community-based programs, like housing, schools, mental health treatment, and drug treatment facilities.
End Police Violence
This section focuses on reducing the likelihood of violence by police on the ground and on reflects the prevalence of de-escalation training in other countries around the world. The call for US police to receive greater training in this capacity has existed for a while, with the US adopting a more self-defensive approach for its officers, rather than one that prioritizes the public’s life as well.
Includes: ending no-knock raids, banning certain means of physical restraint practices by law enforcement, having police be trained to a higher standard in de-escalation training, require the public reporting of all incidents that involved the use of force.
Establish Independent Oversight
Many of the concerns regarding police conduct stem from the lack of accountability officers of the law experience in the US. In recent memory, part of the outrage that came as a result of the Ahmaud Arbery case was tied to the months-long delay on any criminal charges being placed on his attackers.
Includes: To remedy this, this section advocates for the establishment of a “civilian oversight [committee] with subpoena powers over law enforcement,” as well as a “Police Accountability Unit.” Together, these units could both independently investigate and bring charges to law enforcement officers for misconduct. Similar organizations do currently exist in countries like Canada, where independent agencies hold quasi-judicial power to acts as a check and balance to the police force.
Hold Police Accountable
While the previous section is focused on investigating and sanctioning law enforcement agents in cases of misconduct, this subtitle covers the microlevel steps and procedures that could be put in place to prevent cover-ups, further assist the families of victims, and overcome barriers to police accountability.
One of the most interesting points from this list — in my opinion — lies in the requirement that police all come from the communities that they serve. This idea no doubt targets the disconnect between officers and civilians that become very apparent when viewing many of the misconduct cases we have seen to date. Additionally, it further pushes for the ‘community-orientated’ policing ethos that runs throughout this entire policy packet.
Includes: publically accessible databases listing key policing stats and all complaints against police officers, an online ‘public warehouse’ to share video evidence of crimes to victims’ families and media, require any police officer involved in a shooting undergoes drug and alcohol testing within 1 hour of the incident.
Decarcerate: Pretrial, Sentencing, and Prosecutorial Reform
One of the more broad sections, with aims such as decriminalizing all drugs, ending the death penalty, and reducing penalties for a range of non-violent crimes, the ‘decacerate’ effort overall seeks to lessen the number of people being punished and increase the number of people being helped. One mode of thinking here includes reducing the number of things that can get people in jail; another mode of thinking involves helping people avoid excessive punishment once they are caught and increasing their rights even after convicted.
Includes: Drug decriminalization, removing mandatory minimum sentences, reducing punishments for parole violations, funding public defenders offices, reducing parole periods, removing pre-trial surveillance, restore right to vote for felons.
Touching on many hot debates that dominated news headlines over the past several years, immigration reform seems to be somewhat distanced from the other demands. However, in light of their mission statement to fight the “mass incarceration monster,” it still very much relevant.
Includes: Reinstating sanctuary cities, ending collaboration between ICE and local law enforcement, competent legal counsel for immigrants, reducing abuse and separation in detainment camps.
So, what does this mean?
Having read the policy points, it becomes very clear that they were written from the perspective of a group of citizens disillusioned from the State and angered by the lack of justice they see around them. The project has managed to address seemingly all the talking points of the movement, pulling their demands in from every “if only we had… this could all have been avoided,” comment made. From drug criminalization to police accountability to community investment, no stone was left unturned.
These issues not only come from the hearts of the people but the language of this policy document is written to reflect this too. ‘Proper procedure’ and ‘law and order’ are phrases absent from this document, instead replaced by a lexicon of the people.
It also appears to be impressively comprehensive. Many of the policy points are aimed at addressing the failures of the current system in all its forms, fixing them with community-oriented solutions. Prevention and treatment seem to be the ethos here, replacing the capture and punishment model we have become accustomed to.
What will come of this?
It’s impossible to say. What is interesting, however, is that they adopted to form this project as if manifesting the will of an angry people, hungry for justice. This approach comes instead of a set of demands that could be made to local or national governments that, if satisfied, could lead to an end to the protests: an approach made by the Hong Kong protestors, for instance. This leaves the protests themselves still without any guidance, defined aim, or end in sight.
“Racial justice” and “making black lives matter” are powerful statements, but lack any set definition. The same also goes for the often used justification for more provocative acts, that they are “making a statement.” What statement, the public may then ask, and to whom?
Without answers to these questions, it seems the movement on the streets is set to continue until it simply loses energy — or not — but for now, there is no end in sight. Currently, it’s growing and adapting on a daily basis, as the protestors become more advanced in their approach to handling police violence, and as more groups join the battle to fend off looters.
How does this relate to the BLM protests?
Considering the Grassroots Law Project has targetted sweeping, national reform as its mission statement, the goals are certainly grand enough to unite the movement. However, it is important to note this is not its intended aim, systematic change is. Additionally, the project seeks to get justice for a list of cases, which in turn could help address the anger and frustration felt by many protestors.
With a new direction and set mission statement, some definite parameters could help bottle the chaos that has defined the protests so far. Making noise has got it to this point, and the world is now listening. No one dares turn away. Not even for a moment. But what they are saying is unclear. The Grassroots Law Project does not claim to speak for these people, but it could be part of a more concise solution to the issue of racial injustice and police brutality in America.
What happens now? What should we be doing?
Keep your head on a swivel and wait and see. Every day we’re making history, and who knows, maybe this will be the big one: whatever that means.
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