In 2019, I pushed US Rep. Alma Adams to bring a guest to the State of the Union who had been victimized by our broken criminal justice system. I worked tirelessly with Republican and Democratic groups to push for prosecutorial reforms; we ended up with appropriations language that resulted in additional funds for court technology—enabling prosecutors and court actors to collect data on their decision making processes.
I was fierce in my advocacy, so much so that Vice News began documenting our efforts. From Charlotte to DC, they followed our legislative push. But, I never said why this became my focus (HBCUs and Hill staff diversity, taking a sudden back seat). I was too heartbroken, devastated, and traumatized to talk about my experience.
We often think, I have a degree, I live in a good neighborhood, I'm this or that - it'll never happen to me. Wrong. Ask Criminal Law Professor Paul Butler or US Prosecutor Bianca Forde - it happened to them because no one with dark skin is immune. Structural inequity doesn't care about your position; that is why reform must be our collective fight. Failing to do so will be the injustice of our time.
I didn't find the courage to share my story until I met Bianca. And it was students at NC A&T that stood by me as I did.
While demanding criminal justice reform, remember prosecutors. Black women have between zero and 4% declination rates in certain jurisdictions. Meaning we are profiled and over-policed. Compounding the injustice is the fact that prosecutors don't screen cases. If you're a Black woman, you're more likely than not to be charged, put in the system, and forced to wait until your case is screened. For Black woman, it's charge first and asks questions later.
To put it in further perspective, when I was going through an endorsement interview, the Black woman political director asked why I was running for Congress. I shared my story, and she said, "the same thing happened to me." A few months before that, another Black woman in politics invited me to speak at a conference; afterward, I shared my story with her. Again a Black woman responded, "the same thing happened to me."
Surviving my "Amy Cooper" situation made it abundantly clear that we can no longer afford to talk about criminal justice reform. It's time for action, and that begins with changing the face of our elected bodies.
Hire more diverse staff. Staffers get hired for their ability to build stakeholder coalitions, draft policies that reflect stakeholder interest, and devise strategies to get legislation passed. Members of Congress are the brand (i.e., Trader Joes), the Chief of Staff is the CEO (manager of all things and top strategist), and the remaining staff serves as various other organizational leaders. Just as workforce diversity matters in the public sector, it must also matter in the private sector. We will not have inclusive policies that address substantive issues and that become law, if we don't have staff that reflects the American people.
Elect more Black women. Those closest to the pain are often the ones best equipped to address it. Before my arrest, I never paid criminal justice reform much attention. I was that Black woman who tragically thought all people arrested did something wrong, and if they didn't, there's no way our system would allow them to arrested, let alone prosecuted! Wrong. If not for my tragedy, I wouldn't be the advocate that I am now. Black women are hyper-victimized by our broken criminal justice system - we are over-policed, overcharged, over-prosecuted, and we shoulder the burdens of Black men's abuse within the system. It's why we're seeing more women like Lucy McBath and Sabrina Fulton run for office. Their voices and experiences are key for ushering in meaningful reforms.
Make District Attorney Elections Matter. Prosecutor offices are typically led by elected officials (District Attorneys), which means we can easily vote them in or out. "Hard on Crime" is the 90's version of "make America great again." Don't support candidates that support these race based mantras. We pay more attention to higher ballot races (President, Gubernatorial, Senate), even though the lower races have a greater impact on our daily lives. When it comes to DA races, and even Sheriff races, demand that your candidate endorses transparency and accountability, not immunity. Support candidates who want to invest in community services and not jail cells. Promote the candidate that believes we process too much crime and will commit to decriminalizing certain non-violent crimes - turnstile jumping, jaywalking, and marijuana offenses.
Take money out of politics: Money determines who wins elections. Donors with the most capital wield the most influence. We have villainized corporate political action committees (PACs are bank accounts for special interest groups). But, what about police union PACs? These unions contribute millions to political campaigns, and it's why immunity is a protected and unchangeable reality. No public servant should have, nor want to be immune. We cannot tolerate immunity nor can we afford politicians who will not stand against it. Taking money out of politics must be a part of criminal justice reform.