After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd — on tape, in broad daylight, as Floyd pleaded for his life, bystanders protested and three other officers stood by — I began to receive emails from my students. Like so many other Americans, they were in agony and wanted to know what they could do. They marched and they donated and they listened, but they had a dispiriting sense that the energy of the moment would spend itself and that nothing would change. They thought the country would simply careen to the next crisis, and this one would be forgotten.
They are right to worry. Because I teach and write about criminal justice, and because I have spent my entire adult life — beginning when I was an undergraduate at Cornell — working for progressive change in criminal justice, they thought I might have some wisdom to share. I leave others to decide whether any of this constitutes wisdom, but here is my advice.
Study. Act. Celebrate. Grieve. Repeat.
Study. Study history. Understand the origin of the racial wealth gap. Understand the origin of concentrated poverty in American cities. If you live in a suburb, ask yourself the history of the highway system that connects suburbs like yours to cities like Minneapolis or Chicago or Boston. Study politics. Understand the origin of the wars on crime and drugs, and how the South became a Republican stronghold. When someone mentions Willie Horton and Lee Atwater, know who they’re talking about and why it matters.
Study literature. Read James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and scores of other writers who have put into words the searing pain of racism, poverty and exclusion. Study public health. Ask yourself why poor people of color are more likely to be victims of COVID-19 and police brutality. Study housing. Ask yourself why housing in this country is a commodity you have to purchase on the open market and not a right guaranteed to all. Study inequality. Examine who will gain the most from the bailouts extended during the pandemic. Study the reparations movement. The media. Racism. Xenophobia. War. Peace. Justice.
If you are attuned to the connections, all of this study will reward you. That is because the murder of George Floyd is not simply about a single black man killed at a single moment by a single white officer. Get beyond the distinctly American obsession with individual responsibility. The United States created the modern police force, with its SWAT teams and high-powered weaponry and warrior mentality. The country built it for a purpose — a purpose that cannot and should not be separated from the big houses in the suburbs with the best schools and the cleanest streets and the Cornell futures. It should not be separated from the North Side of Minneapolis, the West Side of Chicago and the South Side of Ithaca.
Act. Do not content yourself with knowledge. With knowledge comes a responsibility to redress imbalances and make reparations. Protest. Speak. Donate. Give your time, your money, your knowledge, your heart. Demand change. Again and again, demand it, because the need is great and the time is short. And because it is all connected, you don’t have to work in criminal justice to prevent the next murder of the next George Floyd. One of my students who graduated this spring got a job with an organization dedicated to fighting climate change. Her heart was in criminal justice reform, but do you think climate change is less of a threat to a just world? Climate change will accelerate mass migrations all over the world. Mass migrations will amplify nationalism and xenophobia. Hyper-nationalism will produce calls for intensified policing and an expansion of the carceral state. Climate change is criminal justice, just as it is housing, public health and education.
Celebrate. There will be victories. There will never be enough, but that makes them all the more precious. If anyone had told me when I was a student at Cornell that one day the Supreme Court of the United States would declare that same sex marriage is protected by the Constitution, I would’ve thought they were smoking this new drug that was going around — The New York Times called it crack. Do not let small victories go uncounted.
Grieve. There will be losses. Money will triumph over justice; it almost always does in this country. Hatred will trump tolerance. Bigotry is not going away. Soon, the United States will be a majority minority country; do you think white supremacy will go gently into that good night? To work for a better world is to be continually disappointed. Some of the losses will sting forever. Do not be embarrassed to grieve, but do not stop. Tomorrow is another day, and the struggle for justice does not end.
Repeat. There is always more to learn, more to do, more victories to celebrate, more losses to grieve. Do not give up.
That is my advice.
Joseph Margulies is a professor of law and American studies at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to [email protected] Guest Room runs periodically this semester.