Michelle Alexander and Paul Butler Talking About ‘Chokehold: Policing Black Men’

A conversation about white supremacy, the criminal justice system and the transformation that's needed.

Alexander and Butler on 'Chokehold: Policing Black Men'

Earlier this month at the Brooklyn Museum, scholar and MSNBC legal analyst Paul Butler joined Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow, for a conversation about his latest book, Chokehold: Policing Black Men. As a former federal prosecutor, Butler uses his firsthand experience to demonstrate how the legal system is structured to target and criminalize black men.

In the video, the two criminal justice experts talk about the biggest misconceptions that people have about their rights; the intersection of race, class and gender and the significance of it in the criminal justice system; the problem with African-Americans internalizing many of the ideas promulgated by the media that they are the problem, not the system; and ideas for ways to disrupt the criminal justice system in a way that would force a real reckoning.




Paul Butler and Michelle Alexander

Paul Butler, visiting professor, Harvard Law School, Albert Brick Professor in Law, Georgetown University, author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men and Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice. (Photo courtesy of the Heinz Foundation) Michelle Alexander, visiting professor, Union Theological Seminary, author of The New Jim Crow. (Photo by Sam Hollenshead)

Michelle Alexander: When I was invited to this event and asked if I would be interested in supporting the launch of this book and the message you’re trying to share in it, I immediately said yes, because I had read this book. Not only are we friends and go back, but I had read this book and immediately was struck by Chapter 7, entitled, “If You Catch a Case.”

Now, when I started out as a civil rights lawyer and I was working at the ACLU, representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, I would frequently get calls from church groups, community organizations that would say, “Can you come out and give us a, ‘Know Your Rights’ presentation?” “Can you come out and talk to our church?” Or, “Talk to the kids in our mentoring program because they’re getting harassed by the police nonstop, they’re being tossed, there’s all this craziness going on and somebody needs to come and tell them about their rights, what they can do when the police come after them.”

And at first, I’d say yes I’d go out there and bring my briefcase and set up my podium. But after I had been doing the work for a while, talking about what the Fourth Amendment is supposedly meant to mean — your right to remain silent, your right to refuse consent to search, your right to ask for an attorney, your rights that are supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution, after doing the work of representing people whose faces were smashed to the pavement when they tried to assert their rights, who found extra charges thrown at them when they said, “You don’t have the right to do that to me,” I said to myself, I’m not giving these ‘Know Your Rights’ presentations anymore. I need to find a way to tell these people: You have no rights, you’re black, there are no rights in this Constitution that a cop is bound to respect.

And, what you have done with Chokehold is write the book that I wish I could have given people. When they asked me, “What are my rights?” And “What should I do when the police come after me?” I urge all of you, not only if you’re black but if you know any black people, you need to get this book — if for no other reason than for Chapter 7, which gives detailed instructions, step-by-step instructions, regarding what to do if the police come after you. How to prepare, especially if you’re a black male, for the inevitability of hostile police contact. I just want to say thank you, not only for writing a book that is so compelling and readable and makes such powerful, provocative points, but for also writing a guide for ordinary folks that’s honest and real about what rights they may think they have and what’s real for them on the street and how best to protect them when they find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun or when the sirens go on. Thank you for that.

Paul Butler: For that chapter, I don’t know if you guys remember that commercial where the man would say, “Not only am I the president of the Hair Club for Men, I’m also a client. So, obviously, I’m not the president of the Hair Club for Men, either, or a client. [laughter]

But, Chapter 7 was like making that move for me. I was a prosecutor, as you heard, and I graduated from the citizens of the District of Columbia, the young black men there to public corruption. And I was working at the Justice Department — I had the highest-profile case in the section against a United States senator, prosecuting him for public corruption. And while I was working on that case, I got arrested and prosecuted for a crime I didn’t commit. Now, I’m not going to tell you what happened because I want you to buy Chokehold, [laughter] and learn about it.

But, I’ll give you a hint. Things worked out fine for me, and the reason things worked out fine was I had the best lawyer in the city: Michelle Roberts. I had the resources to have her represent me. Things worked out fine for me because I had legal skills, I literally had prosecuted people in the courtroom where I was being prosecuted. Things worked out well for me because I had social standing. We made sure the jury knew things about me that shouldn’t have mattered, like I was a lawyer, but that did matter. And, the other reason things worked out fine for me is because I was innocent. But, that didn’t seem like the most important reason. In some ways, it seemed like I would have been better off being guilty and having that great lawyer and those legal skills, than innocent and not having that. I beat my case. I want other people, and especially brothers to know how to beat theirs.

And, again, it’s real talk, it’s — when I was writing that chapter, what I was thinking of was the genre of horror because when you’re a black man in the system, again, they’re out to get you. And, so, how can you have a better outcome. And, again, when people say, “Oh, just, you know, assert your rights to the cops,” Michelle put it best: “A black man has no rights that a cop is bound to respect.” But there are ways to have better outcomes and, so, that’s what that chapter is about and I’m really glad you liked it.

MA: No, I greatly appreciated it. And I wonder if you would just say a little bit about some of the misconceptions about what kinds of rights people think they have, as opposed to what is real. You know, I found that when I was giving these “Know Your Rights” presentations, over and over people would say, “The police said such and such and it was a lie. Can they do that?” The notion that the police are legally allowed to lie to you, to tell you that your friend already snitched on you, or that your mother actually ratted you out and said that you had dope in the car, or that the police can lie to you and actually train to lie to you and that that’s not illegal — it’s not considered wrong, but actually part of how the system works. That, yes, the police actually can seize your money, take the money out of your pocket, seize your car, and then not charge you with a crime but keep your cash and keep your property. That’s not illegal?

There’s so many misconceptions about how the system works and it’s so blatantly unfair and defies people’s common sense about how any democracy that claims to be the land of the free ought to work, that there’s a sense of wild disbelief that, even if they had a lawyer, that they couldn’t actually challenge this police conduct in a court of law successfully. What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions that inspired you to write that chapter?

PB: It’s a great question. And, it’s funny, because when I was a prosecutor, sometimes defendants would tell me that their cops were lying and I’d say, “You mean you think this cop has nothing better to do but to make up a lie about you to put you in jail?” When I got prosecuted, the cop got on the stand and lied his ass off. And my defense attorney friends, they get mad at me; they say, “Well, it shouldn’t have taken that to make you understand.” What I’ve said is that being prosecuted made a man out of me, a black man, and so now I understand a lot of what I didn’t understand before, including that rights don’t matter a whole lot for African-American men in the system.

The country that African-American men live in is not free.

— Paul Butler

We have this sense that you have all these rights — the right to not talk to the police, the right to refuse consent. And some of those you certainly should try. Again, if the police ask you, “Can we search your car? Can we search your book bag?” I think all of us should just say “no,” to get the police used to hearing “no” and not responding. The police don’t have to read your Miranda warnings. If they don’t, that means that what they say can’t be used in court. What you say can’t be in used in court. But there are lots of exceptions to that. The police don’t even have to tell you why you’re being arrested. The Supreme Court’s never required that.

If we look at the different stages of the process, how to avoid the attention of cops is so important. That’s where, when I was writing sometimes, I talked to defense attorneys, I talked to cops, and they’d say things like, “Well, if it’s more than two black men together, outside, if it’s three black men. A black man in a car with a white woman. Three black men in a car.” So, a long list in Chokehold that will break your heart. The country that African-American men live in is not free.

I want to make it clear that this is not a race to the bottom. The claims that I’m making about black men could, as well, apply to other groups: black women, Latino people, Native people, trans people. Chokehold is about the intersection of blackness and maleness; it’s about race and gender, but other groups certainly experience some of the same dynamics with the cops.

MA: One of the things that I really appreciated about your book was that you acknowledge that black women do not have it better off. They’re not better off in this system than black men. And that it’s important to acknowledge the particular experience of black men or black women in the intersection of race and gender and how that plays out in the context of the system of mass incarceration. But to write a book that’s specifically about black men isn’t to deny the importance of the experience of black women. I think you did a better job, frankly, than I did in my book. I wrote in The New Jim Crow — I had a line in the book that said, “Look this book focuses on the experience on African-American men and I hope other scholars will pick up where I have left off and apply some of these ideas and themes more broadly in other context” — but I didn’t do what you did in this book, which is to drill down and explore kind of what the significance of intersectionality is in the context of our criminal justice system.

So, I wonder if you would say a little bit more about that, why it’s important for us to think very carefully about kind of the particular intersection of race, and class, and gender, in the context of the criminal justice system. And, also, why programs like, you know, My Brother’s Keeper, that have excluded black women from their focus are so problematic.

PB: Yes, so, I think about in Chokehold, the event at the White House where President Obama announced My Brother’s Keeper and it was the most bipartisan moment of his presidency. So, My Brother’s Keeper is a program for African-American boys and men, boys of color and men, Latinos and Native-American men as well. And, at this White House ceremony, there were people you’d expect to be there, like, the major leaders of the civil rights organizations. And, some people who you might not expect, like, Mayor Bloomberg, Bill O’Reilly, a lot of people.

Mayor Bloomberg had said a couple of weeks before that the problem with Stop and Frisk in New York was that too many light people were being stopped and not enough black people because of political correctness. When I saw him there cheering on this program for black men, I said, “What’s up with that? Why would he be there?” President Obama even made a joke about it. He said, “If I have Bill O’Reilly and Al Sharpton at the same program, I must be doing something right.” Well, maybe not. [laughter]

There’s nothing about black male achievement that creates these kind of strange bedfellows because as we saw, a lot of people think that the problem is us, that we need to just fix our culture, the way that we perform masculinity, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about being shot by the police. One concern about those programs is that they reinforce that stereotype. President Obama said the idea of My Brother’s Keeper came to him after Trayvon Martin was killed. Trayvon Martin didn’t need a male role model; he was on his way to his dad’s house when he was gunned down. So, it was unclear how a program designed to foster black male achievement would make a difference in the kind of structural concerns, the entrenched white supremacy that was about why Trayvon Martin was killed, why Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland — why they were killed.

One concern about these programs and about this sole focus on black men is that they get the problem wrong. The problem is not brothers; the problem is, again, the system working the way it’s supposed to. This dynamic of law and policy in our everyday practice is subordinating, keeping black men down, and then blaming us, punishing us for the subordination. And, the other concern is that they leave women out. So, this was President Obama’s signature racial justice initiative. The most feminist president in history, married to a lawyer, two wonderfully smart daughters, but why would he leave half of the race out if this is his main racial justice thing?

Again, the concern is it stems from a particular view of black men as, again, needing fixing and then it will be all good. That’s not how racism works, that’s not how white supremacy works, right? Black girls live in the same neighborhoods, have the same teachers and deal with the same cops as black boys. I thought that there needed to be an analysis that focused on race and gender, but I wanted to do it different from the way that some people had done it before.

Again, Michelle, I think your work, obviously — it started this movement. I think it was great. But one of the things I like about black culture is this call and response, right? You take it here and then give it to me and then I’ll give it back to you. You see that in hip-hop, you see that in visual art and we see that in scholarship. So I looked at Michelle’s work and I thought, “Is there anything left to be said?” And, one thing I thought: “Well, how about drilling down on this focus on race and gender?”

The subordination of black men has always been as much about gender as about race. So it wasn’t enough, as you saw in the exhibit, for black men to be lynched — their penises had to be cut off and stuck in their mouths. In police cases, we see this repeated pattern of sexual violence against black men as well. Punishing us for gender as well as race. That’s Chapter 5 — check it out and, again, let’s have this back-and-forth. Let’s continue, because it’s hard. I’m a proud black man, I’m proud to be an African-American man. I’m mad at the injury that white supremacy does to my masculinity. At the same time, I don’t know what it means to empower maleness in a patriarchal society. So that’s something that, Michelle, you have to help us with.

MA: I think that one of the things that neither of our books does is explore, carefully, the unique experience of women of color and black women in the era of mass incarceration. But there is a new book that does and, so, I want to give a shout-out to a book that I really encourage folks to pick up and read, as well, called Invisible, No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, by Andrea Ritchie. I think it’s a wonderful complement to your book and, also, a phenomenal book by Susan Burton, called Becoming Ms. Burton, describing the experience of one of my friends and heroes, who has become a real leader in the movement of formally incarcerated people for the restoration of their basic civil and human rights. And I think that those authors and their work is such an important compliment to your book and to the work that we’re trying to build together. So I encourage folks to check out that work as well.

PB: And when we think about building communities, intentional communities, it’s so important to come together with other folks who are doing the work that you’re doing. So with Andrea’s book about black women — there’s a writer’s retreat that Kimberlé Crenshaw, who’s the architect of intersectionality, she sponsors in Negril, every year — and that’s where Alvin and I hang out, that’s where Andrea and I went back and forth. She’s writing a book about black women, I’m writing a book about black men and the police. The Soros Justice Fellows — that’s where I get to hang out with Michelle and Susan Burton. So, again, these communities are all intentionally formed but really generative. So when we think about, “Well, what is it that we can do to make a difference,” it’s so important to come together with other people who feel like you do and to work together.

MA: You know, I want to circle back, though, to this kind of whole question of, it’s the system, it’s not us that’s the problem.

PB: Yes.

MA: Because one of the things that you highlight in your book is that, for example, black police officers are more likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than white police officers, and that there’s also survey data that suggests that many stereotypical views of African-Americans, negative stereotypes, are actually held more intensely by black people than by white people. Not all stereotypes, but some of the most damning stereotypes are actually held more intensely by black folks than white folks. And, certainly, it was my experience when The New Jim Crow first came out, that I received some of the strongest pushback from black preachers, when I’d be on their radio shows, who would argue most strenuously that really it was black men who were the problem, that they needed to pull up their pants, they needed to act right. And one of my deep concerns is that the system of mass incarceration really has turned the black community against itself in ways that the system of Jim Crow segregation, for example, did not. And that the shaming and the blaming in this era has been so internalized by so many of us that it’s difficult for us to imagine that, kind of as you put in the book, that we didn’t bring all of this on ourselves. That, perhaps, we actually are responsible for this tidal wave of punitiveness that’s washing over us. So I’m curious what your response is to that.

After an event that I did a couple of years ago, I was introduced to an Asian-American man who runs an academic enrichment program for urban kids, black kids, and he came up to me after my talk and said, “You know, I have shared this book with my students because I want them to come to see that they’re not the problem. That they actually believe the worst things that are said about them in the media.” And he’s like, “In so many ways, that’s the critical different between these urban black kids and immigrants who come to this country; they don’t actually believe all the crap that’s said about them.” So I wonder — if we say it’s the system, it’s not us that’s the problem, whether we’re fully aware of the extent to which we have internalized many of the ideas of the system in a way that make us very much complicit with and part of the problem.

PB: Yes, I think that’s so true. With regard to black cops, when I looked at the data, threat vulnerability perception — that’s what it’s called when the cop sees your cell phone but he thinks it’s a gun and he shoots you; it happens quite frequently with black men more than any other group. Who’s most likely to do that? The data suggest Latino cops, then black cops. An African-American man, looking at the data, is actually safest around a white cop. Now, all we have is that data; we don’t have an explanation for why that is. One reason might be that black cops are selectively deployed in black neighborhoods and so they have more exposure. But a number of other studies have suggested that African-American cops are more likely to shoot a black person.

MA: Boyz n the Hood highlighted that, and that was a long time ago.

PB: Yes, and my first book was about hip-hop and criminal law — and hip-hop is full of stories about, well, as NWA puts it, “The black cops showing off for the white cop.” I think we need black police officers, we need communities that are patrolled by people who look like us, in part because most of what cops do isn’t arrest people. They arrest a whole lot of people, but most of what they do is what we call community caretaking. And it’s important to have black people in that position.

But in terms of the concerns that I identify in Chokehold about violence, against the erosion of civil liberties, about how black men don’t live in a free country, black cops don’t make a difference there. And I know, based on my experience living in the District of Columbia — in the District of Columbia, black people were actually overrepresented on the police force. Blacks are about 50 percent of the city’s population, about 70 percent of the cops are black.* And guess what else? DC has the highest rate of black male incarceration of any jurisdiction in the country. So part of what was going on is — what happened when I was a prosecutor, one of the reasons I was hired — is for jurors who were, at the time, mainly African-American, who would come to a criminal court. In DC, like New York, like Chicago, like a lot of cities, if you go to criminal court, you will think that white people don’t commit crimes. They’re just not present in the numbers that black and Latino people are there.

One of the reasons I was hired was to be a black prosecutor for jurors who had these concerns to see this chocolate skin, it’s supposed to make them think, “It’s all good. This brother’s up here, go to sleep.” I’m so glad that those jurors didn’t go to sleep and the first thing that I wrote about when I left the prosecutor’s office and started teaching was this amazing intervention they were making in nonviolent drug cases. When they knew the guy was guilty and they would say, “Not guilty,” because they said there were too many black men in jail. You know, if there was a way to keep some out, and these were old black people who had moved to DC from North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s and it was a bother to be called to jury duty but it was also an honor. But, for once, these jurors had a little power over the law and when they got that power, they used it the best way that they knew how. And, Michelle, I know you’ve had some great ideas about ways to use the criminal process and including the tragedy that 95 percent of people plead guilty — ways to disrupt. So I don’t know if you want to talk just for a moment about that.

MA: Well, sure. You know, I mean, it actually wasn’t my idea, it was Susan Burton’s idea. Susan Burton, in a conversation with me a few years ago, she called me up one day and said, “You know, a group of us organizers have been thinking about ways to crash this system. What could we do to disrupt this system in a way that would help to capture the attention of this nation and kind of force a real reckoning?”

And she said, “One of the ideas that came up was what if, what if we all exercised our right to trial. If it’s true that 95 percent of all cases are plea bargained out, if we just started exercising our right to trial, wouldn’t the system just crash? Wouldn’t it just grind to a halt?”

And I had to acknowledge that she was right, that there aren’t enough judges, there aren’t enough prosecutors, there aren’t enough defense attorneys — you couldn’t call enough people to jury duty to manage the millions of cases that churn in and out of our system every day. But, of course, the problem is that the US Supreme Court has ruled that you effectively can punish someone for exercising their right to trial and if people began to exercise their right to trial as a form of protest, on a large scale, prosecutors could threaten people with life imprisonment, that we’re going to add decades to your time if you don’t cop a plea.

And I remember Susan saying, “Well, yes, maybe some of us are going to have to risk our lives in order to bring this system to a halt.” But it’s difficult for me to advise people to exercise their right to trial just for the sake of doing it to make a point, knowing that, yes, prosecutors can throw decades of time at you simply for the inconvenience of taking your case to trial.

I think it is important to recognize that this system depends on our cooperation in order for it to hum along in the way that it does.

— Michelle Alexander

So there are strategies to disrupt the system, but they come with a price. And as Susan said then, “Well, during the civil rights movement, during the black freedom struggle, people had to be willing to risk their lives.” And people are, in fact, risking their lives every day on the streets when they even take the risk of speaking back to a police officer who says, “All right, nigger, spread your legs. It’s time for you to be frisked.”

So I have trouble advocating for that as a strategy, knowing what the consequences would be. But I think it is important to recognize that this system depends on our cooperation in order for it to hum along in the way that it does. The minute we all decided to no longer cooperate, it would come crashing down. But on the point of kind of what our responsibility is in all this, one of the things that I also wanted to raise is that your book devotes a whole chapter to violence — specifically, violence in inner-city communities and the so-called black-on-black crime that is often raised as a justification for not only harsh punitive sentencing practices but also extremely harsh forms of policing. And you write at the beginning of the chapter that many people told you not to write this chapter — that you had people basically begging you, “Don’t devote a whole chapter to the subject of black-on-black crime.” I wonder if you could say a little bit about why you decided to do so and what you felt was critical for people to understand.

PB: White supremacy doesn’t only explain our brutal policing and mass incarceration. White supremacy also explains this extraordinary risk that black men have of being victims of violence. Victims — either as people who are harmed or people who are harm-doers. And the concern I have is that often the problem gets framed as about black male deficiencies — that the brothers just need to stop smoking each other. And that it’s not placed in a context in which if you think about the culture that’s most implicated in black people being at risk for violence, it’s not black culture, it’s white culture. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Two factors explain what’s going in places like Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles — if you have high poverty, segregated neighborhoods and easy access to guns, that’s a recipe for violence. The reason why white men don’t commit some street crimes at the same level as black men is about the privilege that they have, even as low-income white folks, to not live in these areas. So, if we look at the data, white poor people live in areas that are much closer to middle-class people than black poor people do. There’s no poor like black poor. I talk about that data in Chokehold.

We’re creating this recipe for disaster and we have to ask — there’s a national conversation about why there’s easy access to guns going on right now, a national conversation, that if, like previous national conversations, won’t go anywhere, right? But we also need our conversation about why it is that 7 out of 8 of the people who live in these high-poverty, segregated neighborhoods are black or Hispanic. That’s about choices that white people make, choices not to live — the magic number for black people is 10 percent; actually, that’s the magic number for white people.

If a community is more than 10 percent black, white people won’t move there; they feel unsafe. So the choices that people make about where they live, who they love, in terms of race, who they send their kids to school with — these are all implicated in the creation of these communities, these neighborhoods that are breeding ground for violence. Are there things that brothers could do to make a difference? Yes.

But at the end of the day, those kinds of strategies — getting people to graduate from high school, that makes them much less at risk for going to jail. So we should focus not just on those reforms, but we need to think about transformation. And I think one of the wonderful things about the work that Michelle is doing is [that] it’s not just about criminal justice — she’s helped us understand that the problem is much broader than that. Maybe we can fix the police. Maybe. Maybe we can reduce incarceration. But what we need to do is not reform but transform. And what needs to be identified, specifically, as a problem is white supremacy.

MA: Well, that’s exactly kind of what I wanted to ask you. This will be my last question. I want to invite people who have questions to come to the microphones that are out here, if you have questions for Paul or want to join this conversation. But I want to ask you a little bit about kind of this question of what it would take to transform this system.

At one point in your book, you observed that if the police were behaving in white communities the way they routinely behave in black communities, there would be a revolution — a literal revolution. And history suggests that you’re right. In fact, the American Revolution was inspired in large part by arbitrary and abusive kind of police practices.

And I wanted to ask you: What is your view of why, if that’s true for white folks — if that kind of policing would inspire a revolution for whites, why do you think it hasn’t in the same way for blacks? And I want to kind of preface it by saying, in some ways it has inspired revolutions, right? The Black Panther Party — multiple efforts have been made in this country to engage in genuinely kind of revolutionary resistance against the police and we know how those stories have ended. And in part, that could be the answer to the question itself.

It’s something that I wrestled with as well, once I finally woke up to the severity of what was going on in these communities, which is why have we been as quiet as we have for so long, even in the face of a literal war being waged on our communities. And what might be kind of the way forward and in the beginning of your book, you say, “It’s much bigger than just mass incarceration or reforming of the police.” But then I was struck at the end that when you talk about prison abolition, you are still talking about ending prisons; you’re not talking about a larger revolution that would kind of challenge the nature of American democracy or try to remake American democracy as a whole. So I wonder if you could just say a few words about when you say, “transformation,” and that we need to challenge white supremacy, what does that mean for you?

PB: It’s hard because if you look at reforms of police, like when the Justice Department comes in, when I looked at the data — I talk about this in Chokehold — they just work about half the time. Half the time, violence goes down after the department comes in. The other half of the time, guess what happens? Police violence goes up. But in those places where it goes down, what that means is that fewer people are beat by the cops, fewer people are killed by the cops. So is it worth it to do those kinds of reforms? For those lives that are saved, for those bodies that are preserved, the answer is, yes, it’s worth it.

But that gets in the way of the larger project about transformation. In Chokehold I say, “OK, there are specific things we can do that will make the police better. There are specific things we can do that will make our criminal process more effective.” But what we need — the activists, the folks who would have been runaway slaves, the people who would have held housing on the Underground Railroad, the people who would have led insurrections — we need you to be the activists for abolition, for transformation, for abolishing white supremacy. That’s a conversation; all of those are conversations. So if you ask me now three things to do to abolish white supremacy, I’d have my own ideas, but I welcome yours as well. Same thing with abolition.

With abolition, people are usually concerned, very concerned about the 5 percent — except they don’t know it’s 5 percent — 5 percent are locked up for murder or for sex crimes. So 95 percent of people are not locked up for what we think of as the most serious crimes. So even not knowing what to do about those 5 percent right now, we can start with that 95 percent. We can start with the 80 percent of people who are locked up who have mental illness or addiction. Prisons — I would say that they’re the largest provider of mental health services, except they don’t actually provide those services. What they do is house people. We can start with the 10 percent of people who are 55 or older — another mind-blowing statistic — prisons are opening assisted living facilities for people who, obviously, don’t need to be in prison.

So again, why focus on abolition? Because prisons are violent places that degrade the soul. When I was a prosecutor and I had to go interview a witness in a prison, the first thing I would do when I left is go home and take a shower. You want to wash that off of you. And it’s a shame that any human being has to live like that — that we do that to people, that we stick them in cages, especially for the vast majority who would not harm us if we weren’t there. Is that going to end white supremacy? No. That’s why we need all of us to do both of those tasks. So, in Chokehold, I suggest a division of labor. The folks who aren’t sure what they think about abolition — work with the NAACP, work with the ACLU, or work with organizations that want reform. The title of one of my favorite books, But Some of Us Are Brave — for the folks who would have been out there with Harriet Tubman — your work is to abolish white supremacy. Your work is to come up with a way to do that and then to do it.

The event was presented in conjunction with The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America, organized by the Brooklyn Museum and the Equal Justice Initiative with support from Google. This event was presented in partnership with Open Society Foundations and The New Press. Thank you to the Brooklyn Museum for allowing BillMoyers.com to film the conversation and present it here.

Editor’s Note: Although 70 percent of the Washington, DC police force are minorities, only 60 percent are African-American.