Artist John Hairston was one of 16 artists painting a letter in the phrase "Black Lives Matter" on Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte. (Cardinal & Pine photo by Grant Baldwin). 'Black Lives Matter' Mural in Charlotte
Artist John Hairston was one of 16 artists painting a letter in the phrase "Black Lives Matter" on Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte. (Cardinal & Pine photo by Grant Baldwin).

The leader of Emancipate NC shares why the protests confronting police brutality will change America.

As Sam Cooke sang — a change is gonna come.  

Never have these words been more true in my lifetime. Never have I been more sure that a radical reimagining and rebuilding of the American criminal justice system is imminent. 

On May 20, I found myself in the streets of Raleigh with thousands of other Americans who, even in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, came together in response to the breathtakingly rapid series of murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. 

While we have taken to the streets for the murder of other Black people at the hands of law enforcement, this moment felt different. 

There was a shift in the wind. We were demanding more than a moment of silence and promises of change. 

We stood in unity DEMANDING the actualization of change.  I left that gathering believing that now is the moment when that change will come. 

America has been close to moments like this before. I was 17 years old when America collectively stopped to watch Rodney King brutally beaten by the Los Angeles Police Department. I was 18 when a jury returned not guilty verdicts for the officers we all saw beat Mr. King, like he was less than human.  I remember watching the streets of Los Angeles combust with the collective, justifiable rage of the Black community.  

In my youth, I believed we would see change after that.  I was wrong. I watched the passion and rage return to the low simmer that is always present in the lives of Black American and watched white America return to business as usual. Nothing changed. 

This moment is different and, in coalition with #RaleighDemandsJustice, we will see change in policies, defunding of the police department and reinvesting in services and entities that will pour into the PEOPLE of Raleigh.

What needs to change

One thing that is different in this moment is that along with our collective outrage and pain comes a set of clearly articulated and attainable demands. Raleigh Demand Justice presented the following demands to the people gathered in protest:

  • The removal of Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown if the policies below are not immediately implemented.
  • Subpoena power for a proposed oversight board to strengthen their ability to effectively review and investigate  grievances through a RPD policy change.
  • No NEW police stations built in heavily Black areas and that the multiple stations close to each other in heavily Black neighborhoods are transferred, reducing the over-policing of Black Raleigh communities.
  • A policy requiring police officers to intervene when a fellow cop becomes overly abusive to a detainee.
  • investments community-led health and safety strategies instead of increasing investments in police.
  • The resignation of Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin from her role with Barnhill Construction, a developer, that incentivizes putting property over Black lives. The mayor needs to make a choice: Continue to line her pockets or work for the people first. 
  • A democracy reform package that includes a strong conflict of interest policy and livable full-time salaries for City Councilors and Mayor so working class people can hold elected office. 

Another thing that is different during this moment  is that people in power understand the importance of this moment. 

As executive director of Emancipate NC and a criminal defense attorney, I have dedicated my life to changing our broken, racist, and implicitly biased criminal justice system. For at least a decade, I have tried to move lawmakers, politicians, and people with the power to create positive change. 

For years, it has felt like screaming into the machine.

But, in the last two weeks, community leaders have had private audiences with some of the most politically important people in North Carolina. Police departments are scrambling to change policies on choke holds and use of force. Lawmakers are introducing legislation to address holding law enforcement more accountable. Cities are dismantling police departments and replacing them with systems that are actually designed to help people in crisis.  In short, revolutionary things are ALREADY happening. 

Change led by the people

Another thing that makes this moment different is the cross-generational coalitions moving towards radical rebuilding of our criminal justice system. I marched in the streets of Raleigh with children who could not walk, carried on the back of parents, and elderly people who could barely walk, relying on walkers to march, and every generation in between.  Those people who traditionally use political correctness and respectability politics to shame and silence the voices of young people were faced with disdain and scorn. 

There is a sentiment on the ground that NO ONE knows exactly how to fix this mess, because if they did, it would already be fixed. In this moment we will make space for every generation to move towards building a new criminal justice system in a way that feels right to them.  The beauty of that collective power can, and will, move mountains.

Today, I am hopeful and determined to ride this wave to a future where my grandchildren do not have to get “the talk” from their parents. 

I am hopeful that I will sit with my grandchildren and tell them about this moment in American history when the country finally decided that all citizens deserve to live free of fear that a police officer would kill them for simply existing. 

I will have that moment. I will do everything in my power to turn this moment into real change. A change is gonna come.