North Memphis

The whole world is talking about police reform. Black Lives Matter has solutions.

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“Abolition is not asking you to sing kumbaya with the folks who have committed harm. It is saying that at this at this point, we know that policing folks and throwing them in jail has not actually served our communities.” —Shahidah Jones 
 
It’s been 28 days since George Floyd lay dying on the pavement with now-ex Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck. Yesterday was his daughter’s first Father’s Day without him. 

After weeks of sustained protests across the country and the globe, bail funds have become a rallying point for supporters. Donations have poured into local Black Lives Matter chapters.

Shahidah Jones is a long-time community activist and organizer in Memphis and an on-the-ground expert in inequity and over-policing in Black neighborhoods. She heads the steering committee of the Official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter alongside Briana Perry. 

Jones said their bail fund began in 2017 with Black mothers.

“We were learning more and more about the types of things that happen to women and fem-presenting folks in prisons that often don’t get discussed,” said Jones.

They now host an annual Mother’s Day bailout event in May and Father’s Day event in June.

People who can’t afford bail and a good lawyer can sit in jail for years awaiting trial. Taxpayers foot the bill while the person’s job and housing disappear and their families suffer.

“Bail is not about public safety,” said Jones. “Where you determine guilt or innocence is at trial.”

Even assuming guilt, the vast majority of all crime is non-violent. They’re drug offenses, property crimes, and moving violations including maintenance issues like broken tail lights—all things that can be solved with compassionate support and without involving police or courts.

Violent crime, said Jones, can be a part of the conversation around police reform but should be put in perspective.

Domestic violence, for example, accounts for one out of every 10 homicides in the United States. That figure rises to 4 in 10 for women. Any conversation around reducing violent crime should include domestic violence education, prevention, and intervention.

“Abolition is not asking you to sing kumbaya with the folks who have committed harm,” said Jones. “It is saying that at this point, we know that policing folks and throwing them in jail has not actually served our communities.”
Shahidah Jones is a long-time community activist, organizer, and on-the-ground expert in over-policing in Black neighborhoods. She heads the steering committee of the Official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter alongside Briana Perry. (Submitted)
Office BLM Memphis uses Father’s Day as an opportunity to center conversation on the devastating effects of over-policing in Black communities.

“When we’re talking about over-policing, more often than not, we’re talking about the way [police] will be on street corners, police are going to be present in parks. Many of the folks directly impacted by that are going to be male-presenting bodies,” said Jones..

Jones is frustrated that conversations around police reform rarely include the bigger picture. We aren’t asking the right questions or the right people for solutions.

What’s happening in Black communities that puts Black bodies in more frequent and prolonged contact with law enforcement and the justice system? How do we reduce crime by reinvesting in Black communities, Black health, and Black wealth? And what are the alternatives for holistic and proactive community health and safety that could benefit all Americans?

“It requires that we tear down the things that don’t serve us and build up the alternatives that do something different,” said Jones. “It requires that we have an imagination and the fortitude to think about things differently. To think about how we address and want to address harm differently.”

Jones said we’ve had plenty of time—certainly since the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 passed—to learn police and mass incarceration aren’t the answer.

“Defunding isn’t just a call for the removal of small amounts of money. It’s a call to reduce the size and scope of the authority of police,” she said.
 

Hustle Economics

The justice system can’t be examined in a vacuum.

Economics and white supremacy sit at the roots of over-policing in communities of color. Modern American law enforcement is and has always been a tool to propel both.

“Hustle economics. You’re talking about folks that are on the streets trying to make their living who are most successful getting picked off,” said Jones. “That’s what you see in North Memphis. That’s what you’re going to see in South Memphis.”

For every George Floyd or Eric Garner, there are thousands of others who survive but spend a lifetime interacting with the justice system for no- and low-harm offenses like passing a bad $20 or selling loosies.

“We contend that if you give folks what they need—you give them the access to what they need to live and thrive—that you will see a reduction in all of the harm that is created from folks having to survive these systems that oppress them,” said Jones.

People in wealthier communities aren’t pushed to participate in unsanctioned hustle economics. Other than speed traps, police don’t often hang out in upper- and middle-class communities waiting to catch people in the commission of a crime. They’re dispatched when they’re needed. 

Poverty in U.S. cities is deeply concentrated in Black neighborhoods and over-policing has always overlapped with areas suffering other major disparities.

It’s the result of a long and well-documented history of intentional policies and practices that cut Black Americans off from adequate housing, schools, jobs, financing, and political power.

Related: “Seeing Red: Mapping 90 years of redlining in Memphis”

It started in the slave trade and continues today in more subtle but still insidious forms like stop-and-frisk, denying business and home loans, subpar healthcare, voter ID laws, and states refusing to expand Medicare.

“Memphis and the rural communities where poor folks gather—Black, brown, white, or other—those are the places that folks are literally dying from poverty,” said Jones.

Hundreds gather to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. The 2018 march was organized by Fight for $15 and the Poor People's Campaign and highlights the intersection of race and economics in America. (Brandon Dahlberg)

Over-Policing On The Ground

Jones’ roots are in the Klondike-Smokey City-New Chicago area of North Memphis.

She was 16 the first time a cop pulled a gun on her. She was skipping school.

She said other officers would wait outside Northside High School to catcall the girls and hit on them. They’d look through purses and frisk both boys and girls.

“I was literally a grown woman when I recognized that police did not have the right to stop and go through my shit. It’d just been such a normal thing,” she said.

From 1986 to 1990, Jack Owens served as Shelby County Sheriff. Owens instituted a policy known as ‘jump and grab’ in North Memphis and other low-income Black neighborhoods.

Officers would roll up on people walking down the street and aggressively search them with no cause. They hassled, assaulted, and arrested women for prostitution with no john in sight. They entrapped residents into committing an arrestable offense. Michael Gates was beaten and choked to death in June 1989 during a 'jump and grab' undercover drug sting. He was 28.

“My friend made a post the other day that [said], ‘I still have trauma from jump and grab,” said Jones.

STACKING the DECK

Jones said people criticize Official BLM Memphis for bailing out more women than men, but it’s a matter of resources.

“People are always like, ‘How many Black men did you bail out?’ Uh, not a lot. Because masculinity and Black masculinity affects the way bails are set.”

Jones said they don’t consider a person’s charges for several reasons. First and foremost, they have not been found guilty.

“You’re making a judgement about their case that should be reserved for court,” she said.

They also know that Black men are seen as more dangerous and their charges are often inflated, falsified, and unequally enforced.

“When we start talking about violent dichotomies, [felonies versus] misdemeanors, we’re not talking about the ways that the state defines that. It does not always mean harm. It does not always mean violence,” she said.

All poor people are more likely to experience these same inequities, but layer on race, gender, sexuality, and ability and the divides grow deeper.

“When you talk about who cannot afford to come up with $1,000 [for bail], you are talking about the base of all of the intersections,” said Jones. “People who can afford that in Memphis are rarely going to be poor Black folks. It’s rarely poor folks period.”

Reimagining Policing in America

“It’s funny to me because ‘defund the police’ is like a new hashtag for work that we’ve always called invest-divest,” said Jones.

Invest-divest includes eliminating low- and no-harm offenses and offenses with vague arresting criteria that disproportionately affect poor communities and communities of color. One study across four cities found Black people were up to 9.6 times more likely that whites to be arrested for loitering, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and marijuana possession.

“Let’s literally remove those tools that can be weaponized against people who are minding they fucking business,” said Jones.

Divest also means ending the cash bail system, which in turn significantly reduces the size and scope of jail staff and facilities.

Funds recuperated from law enforcement are then rerouted crisis intervention and emergency aid, as well as long-term supports like public education, improved healthcare access, and job training programs.

Official BLM Memphis doesn’t want to see public money invested in more cultural sensitivity and de-escalation training or new rules around excessive force.

They want to see public health and safety redefined as something other than policing.

When Official BLM Memphis bails someone out, they commit to sticking with them until they thrive. The first step is a needs assessment.

They pay various jail feeds and bail. They assign a bail buddy to remind them of their court date and ensure they have a ride. They can supply or connect folks to groceries, a place to stay, and job resources. This year they've had to consider COVID-19 testing and safe quarantine options for those who will be released.

They are also working with a larger coalition to bring forth violence interruption models to the city. The models ask folks who are most impacted by violence and have committed violence to the table to lead the search for better solutions.

This is what harm reduction and restorative justice look like on the ground.

“We don’t want to hear about what you did. We want to know if we get you out, what do you need?,” said Jones.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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