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What would a grassroots form of criminal justice look like?


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At the n+1 website, Jocelyn Simonson, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, outlines ways that working-class communities of color across the US are resisting and reshaping a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets and incarcerates them. From organized “copwatching” groups that observe and document police behavior, to the annual Mama’s Bailout Day, Simonson examines various forms of “community justice,” many of which have emerged in response to the wave of police shootings of people of color across the US in recent years. An excerpt:

One of the many forbidding aspects of the criminal justice system is its insistence on order and professionalism: a strict separation of who is allowed to speak about what, and who is allowed to be where. The stentorian narration over the opening credits of Law and Order has laid it out plainly for generations: “The people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.” According to the mainstream conception of how democratic criminal justice works, people participate in their local justice systems through voting, sitting on juries, or attending community policing sessions. After they have given local prosecutors and police chiefs their input, the people are then encouraged to sit back and let their representatives do their jobs of seeing justice done.

But participation in criminal justice does not end with elections. Every day, marginalized groups living in the shadow of the carceral state participate in criminal justice from the bottom up. To see this participation in action, one need only walk the streets of neighborhoods with a large police presence or enter a crowded local criminal courtroom. Protesters surround a van in which police have detained a young black man; a participatory defense team creates a biographical video about a defendant; a community bail fund posts bail for a stranger; a group of courtwatchers sits in the audience wearing shirts printed with a defendant’s picture; incarcerated people engage in a labor strike. The value of these moments of communal intervention is not participation for its own sake, but rather the potential to build power and shift legal meanings. Writing in The New Inquiry, activist Mariame Kaba described the choice starkly: “Petitioning the state which is set up to kill us for help and protection can be untenable and therefore forces us to consider new ways of seeking some justice.” As these affected communities have fashioned their own ad hoc forms of communal intervention on behalf of the powerless, they have reinvented the place of community in local justice.

Image: Demonstrators march through the streets following the grand jury decision in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, 2014. Via PBS.