As an author, one of the most gratifying experiences you can have is for people to tell you that your book saved their life, or was extremely useful and relevant to them. But when you write a book like “Justice While Black: Helping African-American Families Navigate and Survive the Criminal Justice System,” your feelings are a lot more complicated. I was hoping it would prove useful to the Black community, but it’s turned out to be waaay more relevant than I’d ever want.
When Atlanta attorney Robbin Shipp and I sat down more than a year ago to start writing “Justice While Black,” it was the specter of Trayvon Martin that hung over the room. The Black community had just suffered through the numbing shock of George Zimmerman’s acquittal. For nearly two decades, Robbin had been witnessing the parade of Black males carted through the criminal justice system in Georgia. For just as long, I had been writing about the stultifying list of African Americans who had been summarily executed by American law enforcement, often for no apparent reason other than their skin color. We both felt compelled to do something, to use our respective talents to make a difference.
But in the months leading up to the book’s release and in the two weeks since “Justice While Black” has been out, the nation has witnessed an outrageous number of African Americans dying or suffering at the hands of law enforcement. As the book’s publication date approached, I was even asked to pen an essay in the October issue of Ebony, looking at the issue from a dad’s perspective, because the topic of the book was so incredibly relevant.
Of course, these kinds of cases have always been with us, popping up every few months to send shivers down our spines—particularly if we have young Black males of our own in the house. But over the summer and early fall, the incidents have been coming with stunning regularity—often brought to us by the wonder of cellphone videotaping.
Just a few days ago, St. Louis exploded again when the police shot and killed another Black boy, 18-year-old Vonderrick Myers Jr. The St. Louis police claim the teen was carrying a 9mm Ruger and fired it at the off-duty cop, who was moonlighting as some type of security officer for a private company, though he was wearing his uniform. The cop then fired his gun 17 times. Neighborhood residents claim Myers was hit 16 times.
So once again St. Louis broils as the rest of us shake our stunned heads. How do we make it stop? Can we make it stop?
“Justice While Black” is our attempt to arm teenagers with something even more dangerous than a firearm: Knowledge.
Robbin (who is running for state labor commissioner in Georgia) and I believe that if more African Americans are fully aware of their rights and understand more about the thinking of law enforcement, they will be better able to navigate the streets (and suburbs) of our cities and increase their chances of arriving home alive. In the book, Robbin talks convincingly about the fact that she seldom if ever saw members of the Nation of Islam caught up in the system in her years of practicing law. She believes this is because the Nation spends considerable time educating its young men about law enforcement and the Constitution—and also because the police know members of the Nation are armed with that knowledge.
Our goal is to get every young Black boy and Black girl to the point where the police in their community hesitate to harass them because they fear these young people are powerfully equipped with knowledge.
“Justice While Black” delves into racial profiling, the traps of the traffic stop, the motivations of the police, the proper mindset when in the back of a police car, the tricks of the plea bargain system, the systemic racism and brutality of the prison industrial complex. It is a crucial book for anybody raising a Black child in America or anybody who cares how our nation locks up Black men and women to feed a multi-billion-dollar business and employment system.
A rave review in the November issue of Essence magazine said, “After reading Justice, you will let go of anything you’ve ever seen on “Law & Order.” It’s all here: what to say (and not say) and what to do (and not do) when dealing with cops and the byzantine court system.”
One of the most devastating findings for me, as I conducted research for the book, was the manner in which modern policing essentially grew out of the slave patrols created to capture and control slaves—and keep them from bringing harm to white people. As we note in the book, “to a large extent, law enforcement in the US, particularly in the American South, was created as a means to monitor, control, and punish black people.”
“Ever since Africans were dragged to these shores, black bodies have been treated by white society as a demonstrable threat, a simmering mass of anger and affront—close by and yearning for retribution,” we write in the book. “With this history, should it be a surprise that the relationship between the police and African Americans, even 150 years after Emancipation, is characterized by fear and loathing, abuse and death?
Maya Angelou once said, ‘The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.’ By tracing the straight line from slave patrols to post-Emancipation policing to the KKK to modern police forces, African Americans can better understand the nature of the relationship we currently suffer through with regard to law enforcement in the US. This understanding allows us to properly prepare our children, our Black boys and girls, for the animosity they are likely to face from police when they step out from under their parents’ watchful eye.”
“History can help save our lives,” we write.
When you sift through American history, it is clear that fear has been the thread weaving its way through the centuries that Africans have been here on the shores of the New World. Throughout the South, African Americans often outnumbered whites on plantations and the planters and their families were constantly terrified that the slaves would decide to overpower them. There were frequent reports in the newspapers of slaves poisoning their masters and even burning down plantations. So the wealthy planters hired poor whites to form slave patrols that would not only track down runaways but also serve notice to the slave population that these armed and dangerous white men were roaming the countryside, itching to pounce on every Black person they stumbled upon.
Two hundred years later, not much has changed.
This is a book that should be required reading for every Black family in America, particularly if you have a Black male in your midst. It might help each one of you arrive alive.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.