What we’re thinking: How can we fix our (in)justice system?

GrokNation asks some of our regular experts: after some shocking court case verdicts, how can we demand justice?
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 06/23/2017 at 12:30 PM EDT

Last week, two big cases caught our attention: Bill Cosby’s and Jeronimo Yanez’s. Cosby’s sexual assault case was ruled a mistrial when the jury couldn’t come to an agreement and Yanez walks free despite the murder of Philando Castile. Both of these turnouts have left many people clamoring for justice, wondering just what needs to happen so folks are held responsible for their actions.

Since then, there have been other incidents, including the murders of Charleena Lyles and Nabra Hassanen. Lyles was murdered by Seattle policemen who were called to her house for a break-in. Hassanen, a 17-year-old Muslim girl was possibly raped and killed, yet police are not investigating her death as a hate crime. Between the various court verdicts and the never-ending killing of Black people and POC (people of color), it feels as if there is no recourse for justice anywhere.

Grok Nation reached out to a handful of folks who regularly discuss, work on, or write about these types of issues, asking them:

How can we demand justice for the victims of sexual assault or for the families of victims of police violence against Black people when our judicial system fails them?

Laura Lucas:Speak up. Speak out. #SayHerName. Do not let these injustices be underreported, ignored, or forgotten. Call, write letters, write emails, go to town halls and marches and vigils. Protest. #Resist. Don’t vote for sheriffs, attorneys and judges who have a track record of giving harsher treatment to people of color than they do to white people who commit the same crimes, or of belittling and dismissing victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. (And yes, that information is out there, especially if they’re running for office.)

Most of all, remember that police are people. They are not uniforms or badges, they are people, and that means they aren’t automatically right every time. Police are not right every time. They are capable of making mistakes, of handling things wrongly, and of letting their fear overtake doing the right thing, even when they know what the right thing is and can do it easily. Do not reduce them to a uniform. Remember they are people and hold them responsible for their actions.”

Lynn B. Johnson:This has been floated by a couple friends on Facebook: Non-racist people MUST accept jury duty.”

Naseem Jamnia: “The first step is for non-Black POC and white people to educate themselves. Know the history of policing (it came out of slave patrols). Know the disproportionate amounts of violence that Black people face. Listen to Black people when they tell you their experiences. Learn that people of color weren’t allowed to become officers, and now, they face discrimination in promotions. Learn about how police forces base success on the number of arrests, that the internal culture is about “us versus them” and indoctrinates people no matter what their background. People of color can buy into and perpetuate white supremacy. Learn about how the “war on drugs” is literally a war on Black people, admitted by the Nixon administration. If you’re into podcasts, I highly recommend “Undisclosed” season three, which focuses on all of these through the lens of Freddie Gray‘s death.

Understand that things need to be totally dismantled in order for them to get better. We can’t have reform when everything is corrupt–literally everything in our justice system. People have been talking about the same types of reform for decades, so where is it? These are conversations that we can only start having when more people learn about the disenfranchisement of Black Americans and show up when an injustice is committed towards them. Put pressure on your local officials, like your city councilmen. Show up to rallies. Contact grassroots advocacy organizations and ask how to help. We need to show up. Change will not happen until the majority are as furious as the marginalized.”

Jennifer Pozner:How to solve white supremacy and police abuse, or misogyny and rape culture? It would take books, not blurbs, for me to even skim the surface. But I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to expose, challenge, and change the media misrepresentation, dehumanization, and complicity that act as contributing factors to these problems:

  1. From the “scary, violent Black man” in movies and TV, to minstrel-era stereotypes about Black women in reality TV, Hollywood consistently stokes fear about and othering of African Americans, in ways that are still echoed in journalism. Studies by FAIR and Center for Media Justice (formerly Youth Media Council) document that news media statistically over-represent crimes by African Americans, and under-represent crimes by white Americans, in contrast to Justice Bureau stats about who actually commits crimes in the U.S. Also documented: yearbook pics and family photos more often accompany news stories about youth crime committed by white suspects, where mug shots and perp walk photos tend to run alongside youth crime stories involving kids of color. When innocent white people are murdered, news narratives tend to focus on the good aspects of their lives and personalities, how much their families loved them, and the bright futures they should have had; when innocent Black people are murdered, the industry too often reverts to damaging “He/she’s no angel” tropes, questions about what they may have done to provoke their own deaths, and explicit or implicit smear campaigns about their imperfect lives. These structural problems in media contribute to fear, loathing, and a denial of Black humanity in the broader American psyche, influencing juries to more easily empathize with cops like the one who killed Philando Castille in front of his partner and baby than to empathize with this innocent victim and his traumatized loved ones.
  2. Media is the engine that reinforces and encourages the culture of rape that we’re referring to when we talk about ‘rape culture.’ (I wrote more about this in a previous Feminism 101 column.) Unethical victim-blaming narratives that permeate even our most respected corporate news outlets, as when The New York Times reported on repeated gang rapes of an 11-year-old girl by 18 young men in TX by asking ‘unanswered questions’ such as ‘how could their [town’s] young men been drawn into such an act?’, noting that ‘she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s’ and giving the first quote to a member of the community lamenting not that the rapes occurred or the horrific trauma endured by the child but the impact of the scandal on the rapists: ‘These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.’ Misogynistic, racist and homophobic news framing denies black women and lesbians the right to self-defense, as when NYC tabloids covered a group of women fighting back against a street harasser’s violence with headlines like ‘Lesbian Wolf Pack,’ ‘Killer Lesbians’ and ‘Girls Gone Wilding,’ inflammatory coverage that helped land the women — not their harasser — in jail. Baseless lies and hysterical opinions are packaged as fact, such as this myth-filled nonsense from Bill O’Reilly about ‘violent lesbian gangs’ raping America’s innocent daughters and attacking defenseless heterosexual men.
  3. Journalism — especially corporate journalism — needs to do better, and we need to force that issue through everything, from letters to the editor and social media campaigns to advertiser boycotts to media justice activism, to break up the media monopolies and prevent future anti-democratic media mergers that prioritize massive profits over journalistic ethics, freedom of information, and the democratic health of our nation. Journalism schools and media outlets must retire the myth of objectivity and the practice of false balance. News outlets must take extra care to not embed the presumption of guilt into stories about African American subjects, whether those subjects are suspects or victims, and must stop reporting on white subjects as if they are inherently trustworthy, regardless of bad acts they have committed. Likewise, news outlets need to stop framing stories about sexual assault in ways that encourage readers and viewers to empathize with the rapist and to question (and blame) the victim’s personality, clothing, and sexual history. News outlets must stop leading the public to believe that the party to be blamed in sexual assault cases is nearly alway the victim, rather than the perpetrator. Journalists must do a better job educating themselves about legal definitions of rape — such as the fact that forcing someone to have sex while they are incapacitated or passed out is an illegal sexual crime — in order to stop reinforcing myths and inaccurate public perceptions about what does and doesn’t constitute sexual assault.
  4. We need to teach media literacy to help kids and adults alike become active, critical media consumers, able to resist the ideological propaganda embedded in rape culture-upholding journalism, movies, TV shows, music videos, and advertising images that reinforce the dangerously prevalent ‘no means yes’ trope, and understand and reject racist trope about African Americans as rapacious, violent, ignorant, threatening people. In their place, we need accurate, comprehensive, inclusive news reporting and analysis of sexual assault, and challenging, creative, humanity-affirming entertainment that celebrates enthusiastic consent and refuses to glorify sexual violence, plus reporting and reporting on the full range of Black people’s lives in ways that respect and reify their humanity. (For more, see my multimedia, media literacy lecture ‘Screen Shot: How Media Instigate Gun Violence and Rape Culture.’)”
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