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Posted under: Opinion

Why I Believe We Must Redefine Our Meaning Of Justice

Imagine our scope of achieving justice if we directed the anger we felt and the desire to punish individual actors to the systems that bred those actors.

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We have been told lies. Lies that have conditioned us to believe a certain way in which we must attain justice and the freedom of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), and all others oppressed by the institutions of society. These lies have created confusion amongst people, distorting what true justice entails. Too often, along the way of liberating those oppressed, we have taken the side of the oppressor unknowingly so in believing those lies.

The lies we tell ourselves about justice and liberation is that, along the way to attaining them, we must punish those that hinder its progress — be it an arrest, imprisonment or simply “canceling” them from our culture. We have conflated the thought of justice with systems that uphold the violence and white supremacy of the very institutions we are trying to dismantle and abolish, furthering its legitimacy and hold into the fabric of this country.

These are the same institutions that criminalize and incarcerate the most marginalized communities, promote transphobia, ableism, misogynoir and classism, among many others. This conflation impedes the true justice and liberation of BIPOC and all other oppressed communities. Aligning ourselves with these systems as solutions to solve our problem is not the answer to justice, and we should not expect them to be. We must redefine what we mean when we say “we want justice,” in a way that aligns our collective work towards true freedom.

Thinking about how we redefine this meaning draws my attention to the Central Park bird watcher. A Black man named Christian Cooper was in New York’s Central Park when he noticed that a white woman named Amy Cooper did not have her dog on the leash, which was one of the rules for the park. Christian asked Amy to put her dog on the leash, and after Amy denied, he decided to film her.

What followed was textbook racism and white supremacy manifesting through Amy Cooper’s actions. She called the police on Christian Cooper and filed a false police report saying, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” none of which was true. After all of this happened and a few days went by, Amy lost her job, her dog and yet still, people celebrated at the idea of charges being filed against her, a hopeful prosecuting and time in prison. All in the name of justice served.

But what is justice here? Our conditioning from the lies of our oppressor has instilled in us that in order to attain justice, there must be some punishment that occurs. In this case, Amy's prosecution. We have allowed ourselves to shift into a place of complacency, believing that by punishing individual actors, we have achieved justice.

Let us ask ourselves: Do we genuinely believe that justice is served where a Black man goes to a park accompanied by a white woman who decides not to follow the park’s rules, the Black man gets harassed by that white woman who falsely accuses him of threatening her in a police report, finally ending with charges brought against the white woman, her prosecution, and potentially time incarcerated?

We need to face reality — the injustice occurred well before Amy stepped foot in Central Park and carried out her actions, not in the individual acts itself.

The true injustice was the systems that made Amy carry out those actions, systems that transcend beyond Amy herself. The systems that taught her to act how she did. These are the systems that breed individual actors to legitimize white supremacy, racism and the many other oppressive schemes of society.

Our definition of justice needs to shift beyond the scope of individualism and the individual actors in which we call for justice upon. We have to recognize that the individualistic lens we have applied for attaining justice does not address the structures that created the injustices in the first place — they leave room for the injustice to continuously occur. Instead of using a lens that looks at conditions on an individual basis with punishment, like with Amy Cooper and many others, we must equip ourselves with a lens that critically looks at the entire apparatus for systemic change.

We can start with a personal self-interrogation, and applying it by asking ourselves what we mean when we say “we want justice.” Who does that justice include or exclude, and why is that what we believe? Are our demands of justice conflated with punishment, and if so, what does that say about the larger movement we are fighting for and the freedom of BIPOC and other oppressed communities?

This interrogation allows us to see how we can sometimes ask for our oppressors to be punished by the same systems that oppress us. We cannot advocate ending oppressive institutions like mass incarceration, then call for the arrest of killer cops that further legitimizes that institution. Audre Lorde writes this plain and simple: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master's house.” Our calls for justice can and must be made without adopting the “master’s tools,” Lorde speaks of.

Imagine our scope of achieving justice if we directed the anger we felt and the desire to punish individual actors to the systems that bred those actors. Shifting our anger is not to say that the individual instances do not warrant an emotional response. It is to say that we should not let our anger or other emotional reactions from individual actors, and the desired punishment that follows, be our motivating factor for justice.

Let us desire to radically change all of our country’s oppressive systems at the root for the freedom of all people that motivate us to achieve true justice.

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Mustafa Ali-Smith is a writer, activist, and graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. He is interested in research that focuses on the intersections of education and criminology, looking at the school-to-prison pipeline, policing, inequality, and mass incarceration. He is additionally the host of a podcast called Redesign America, where he and guests unpack topics in society, culture, race, and politics, all relevant to transforming the very world we live in. You can reach Mustafa by visiting his website at www.mustafaalismith.com or by following him on both Twitter and Instagram at @MustafaAliSmith.