This piece was published in coordination with Zealous, an organization working to amplify the perspective of public defenders and appeared in Teen Vogue. There is a link to the original article at the bottom of this page.
This op-ed argues that the same oppressive system that was called out in 2020 is still hard at work.
What is the price of dish soap? For Lanell, a 46-year-old Chicagoan, the price could be three to seven years in prison and a completely shattered life and future. Prosecutors say he took dish soap from a Chicago convenience store without paying during the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. For this and nothing more, Lanell was charged with “burglary” and “looting.”
For the past 14 months, Lanell has been forced to choose between 24-hour confinement in a shelter, while wearing a court-ordered electronic shackle and being prohibited from leaving, or getting sent to jail in the cages of Cook County’s Department of Corrections until his case goes to trial. Lanell is one of thousands arrested during summer 2020's calls for an end to police violence and oppression; in Chicago, he is one of over 160 individuals still facing felony charges and, collectively, hundreds of years in prison.
During court hearings, these people — people I and other public defenders in Chicago and its suburbs are now fighting for — are reduced by prosecutors and judges to words like “looter,” “rioter,” “the mob,” and “criminal,” racially coded terms that politicians have long used to inexplicitly refer to Black and brown people.
Outside of court, a familiar pattern then emerges: Police and prosecutors share their version of events with the media; then the media, often pre-programmed for quick clicks and sensationalism, prints black-and-white stories devoid of context, sometimes using the same racialized, dehumanizing language that delegitimizes protesters and purposefully distracts from their message; the public then equates protest with violence and calls for racial justice with “criminality.”
Those with the power to change things, who for a moment pledged solidarity and action, again feel free to double down on the same policies and practices that lead to the murder and caging of members of Black and brown communities. The prosecution of Lanell and so many others is outrageous. Perhaps it is also the clearest illustration of the intersection of media, fear, and politics.
A little over one year after cries of "Black Lives Matter” rang through our streets, the same oppressive criminal legal system people were protesting, that lawmakers and corporations were calling out, is now being used to silence dissent and justify the perpetuation of the status quo of racial injustice. All of this is largely a failure of the media, and not just a failure to tell the “full story,” but to tell the truth. Let me explain.
George Floyd’s murder precipitated an outpouring of support for social justice from across the political spectrum and corporate America: The public heard from, among others, Jeff Bezos, Nike, Utah senator Mitt Romney, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker. They expressed solidarity with protesters and pledged to take action through policy, philanthropy, and personal reflection.
Most statements and pledges of this sort have proven to be mere platitudes. The same politicians that promised change are either undermining progress or investing even more in police budgets. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, who told her city “We’ve got to be bold” in the wake of Floyd’s death, recently told Chicagoans that there is “no question” the Chicago police budget will soon increase. True to that promise, she recently unveiled plans to bump police funding from $1.7 billion to $1.9 billion in the coming fiscal year. In 2020, New York mayor Bill de Blasio promised to cut $1 billion from the city’s police force, but mostly shifted money around instead, and a year later increased the NYPD budget by $200 million. After speaking out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, New Jersey senator Cory Booker claimed that no sensible Senate Democrat would want to “defund the police.”
Then there are the corporations that put out statements in support of Black Lives for a performative public relations boost in 2020, some of these companies having long profited from appropriating Black culture while excluding Black creators and artists. People like Lanell face felony-level looting and burglary charges stemming from the uprisings, but these multimillion dollar retailers continue to recoup their losses through insurance while supporting the prosecutions of protestors. Their store windows are rebuilt, luxury items replaced, and inequality continues. Business as usual.
Without actual commitment and dedicated action, empty expressions of support do far more harm than good. They lull the public into believing that those with power will do something to change systems that permit police to commit murder, and that when their actions appear incongruous with such commitment, they are operating in good faith — guided by a heartfelt desire for public health and safety. The general public also moves on until the police kill someone else and the media decides to cover the story. In 2021 alone, so far, the police have killed 885 people.
Fearmongering to multimillion dollar corporations about property damage is a distraction to keep people from pushing back against a long history in the U.S. of segregation, racism, and disinvestment, as are the arrests and prosecutions of protesters who expressed understandable frustration and fury over brutal oppression. Spending an exorbitant amount in resources to pursue felony charges and prison time for people who participated in a massive protest movement is a continuation of the societal response to the protest: Beat them, silence them, discredit and cage them, all with the hopes of deterring them and others from speaking out in the future.
So many of the people who have been criminalized and are now represented by public defenders like me did not break any windows or doors, set fires, make threats, or hurt anyone. These were “crimes” of need, poverty, and opportunity. Prosecution does nothing to address the justifiable rage and anger over the iniquities, racism, and segregation in Chicago and elsewhere that prompted the uprisings.
Most journalists don’t tell you this. Systemic issues do not make for “clickable” stories. Historical context does not make for “catchy” headlines. The media does not report on why “looting” occurs or that it has been a tactic of protesters in America for centuries. The public rarely hears about the fraught history of property in the United States, which is rooted in white supremacy, settler colonialism, and slavery.
We don’t hear about how the police department that last year cashed in on a whopping $367 million overtime bill has also been marred by decades of misconduct and torture, costing Chicagoans over a half billion dollars in misconduct settlements over the past decade. The media doesn’t tell you why the story is about much more than dish soap, or the television, or the bottle of liquor. It is a lack of access to food, housing, education, and health care that drives the need to take, to protest, or do both at the same time.
When talking to the people I represent, I see the results of decades of what scholar and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment.” Somehow, discussing how those in power make intentional decisions that deprive swaths of people of basic human necessities is not relevant in conversations about “crime”; however, had any of the people I represent been born in a different Chicago zip code or income bracket, their lives could have followed entirely different trajectories.
If those in power and those who narrate the stories the public hears are not willing to even acknowledge why people took to the streets, the material conditions that caused their collective grief and rage, and the structures that create and maintain those conditions, how do we expect to address the underlying issues and structures that precipitated this?
The return to business as usual has become typical in this country, and it is disheartening and nonsensical. More than a year has passed since the promise of progress, but political leaders continue to respond in ways that only exacerbate the root problems. More prosecutions, more police funding, and during the protests themselves, further separation of the haves and have-nots through mandatory curfews, cutting off public transit, and raising bridges to prevent people from going downtown.
As a public defender, I assure you: The answer will not be found in a courtroom or prison, spaces that silence through bars, walls, and legalese. Just as journalists often fail to cover protests with nuance and context, and many political leaders fail to respond with any creativity, our crushing legal system is not equipped to solve complex issues that have been centuries in the making.
It’s time to listen to the people who tried to tell (and show) us about the violence of our system of mass criminalization. Instead of ramping up policing and prosecution — and overlooking an entire movement in the process — it’s time for leaders, corporations, and journalists to acknowledge and address the root causes of inequality that create conditions where someone is compelled to take dish soap from a store or break its window.