A few weeks ago I testified before the Seattle City Council's Land Use Committee with 200 sign-waving opponents of building the new Children and Family Justice Center gathered behind me. As soon as I identified myself, the booing began. As the crowd got louder, it became increasingly difficult for me to read my short statement to the Committee. And then I heard people calling out the word: "Racist!"
At the time, it felt very personal. I went home that night and told my 15-year-old African-American son that people had called me a racist. He was puzzled. At first I was at a loss to explain this to him, but as I thought about it I realized that the opponents of the building believe the criminal justice system as a whole is racist and, as presiding judge, I am the embodiment of the system.
"Face up to it, Susan," I told myself. "You're the Man now."
I am not quite sure how it came to this. I moved to Seattle to become a public defender. I was a "true believer," as the prosecutors called those of us who fought passionately for our clients against a system we did not believe to be just. Long before Michelle Alexander penned The New Jim Crow, my colleagues and I railed against the racism of a criminal justice system that prosecuted African-Americans for drug crimes at a rate far higher than whites despite equivalent use of drugs by the two groups. We saw Washington's punitive sentencing system as the result of the prison-industrial complex. We identified the "school to prison pipeline" years before it had a name.
The people who have organized to try to stop the county from building a new juvenile court and detention center share the beliefs of my younger self. As best I understand it, members of groups such as Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, EPIC (End the Prison Industrial Complex) and No New Jim Crow believe that it is wrong to incarcerate youth, period. They believe youth crime should be dealt with much less punitively, with an eye to repairing the hurt caused to the community using principles of "restorative justice." They do not believe that one should have to commit a crime in order to get help.
At the land use hearing, they spoke movingly about their experiences with the juvenile justice system. After listening to testimony from about 40 of the opponents, it was hard to escape the conclusion that in the eyes of many people, especially African-Americans, the criminal justice system has no legitimacy. To a large degree, I share many of their criticisms. I've chosen to try to change the system from within. To these opponents, that's selling out.
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